Elson Floyd leaves big shoes to fill at Washington State University.

He was just 59 when he died June 20 of colon cancer. From the day he stepped onto the WSU campus in 2007, he was determined to make big changes, and he did just that. In his short eight years as WSU president, he pushed higher education along faster than universities are accustomed to moving.

He began by taking a page from Gov. Gary Locke’s playbook.

In 2003, Gov. Locke (D) turned the state’s budget process upside down by establishing the “priorities of government.” Rather than cutting programs equally across the board, Locke and Republican lawmakers prioritized funding to the most vital programs. Locke learned that setting priorities isn’t easy and it angers people whose programs are cut. Floyd learned a similar lesson soon after becoming WSU president.

After the Great Recession struck in 2008, state funding for higher education was eroding. No matter how hard the state’s university presidents lobbied the Legislature, the money simply was not there to fund all the programs. Just as Gov. Locke had earlier identified spending priorities, Floyd believed universities needed to prioritize and focus on their core mission.

Floyd took on that daunting task, which meant eliminating some programs. It worked largely because of Floyd’s charisma and determination.

As part of the state’s austerity program to deal with the recession, university presidents were asked to voluntarily take salary cuts. Floyd was the first to do so, cutting his income by $100,000.

Those two early Floyd initiatives set the tone and pace for the state’s higher education system.

Floyd, whose family roots are in the south, became a Cougar and turned down several offers. He loved students and if he knew of a student was ill or having a hard time, he would step in to help.

Mike Bernard, a WSU grad, small business owner and lifelong Cougar who rose to become Association of Washington Business Board chairman, worked with Floyd on many projects.

“Elson Floyd just loved his job and loved the students,” Bernard recalled. “He was a deep-hearted guy with a disarming smile.”

Being WSU president was not just a job to Elson Floyd, it was a way of life. That’s a tough act to follow.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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